Howe ‘Bout Marconi? Watt ‘Bout Fulton?


Fulton, Howe, Marconi, Watt . . . notice anything about these Sacramento street names? Here’s another example that may light that proverbial bulb above your head: Edison Avenue.

Yes, all these busy thoroughfares in the Arden/Arcade area, along with a few other local roads of note, are named after inventors. If Sacramento had a mascot, it would wear a lab coat.

How did our city maps come to look so science-centric? Were planners enamored with engineering or fixated on physics? Were they loco for locomotion? Perhaps answers could be found at the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center.

Historian Pat Johnson loaded some yellowing maps and heavy, old books onto a cart and rolled them out to a research table, where your humble investigator spent time skimming through notes and minutes from Sacramento County Board of Supervisors meetings starting in 1917. The first sighting of an inventor’s name associated with a street was from Oct. 20, 1920, when bids were received to reinforce the Edison Avenue Bridge (which no longer exists). Marconi and Fulton were first detected in 1923 entries. On a 1928 city map, R Street appears also to be called Whitney. Howe Avenue popped up in 1932, Morse Avenue not until 1941.

Although the when seems retrievable for these inventor street names, the why might be unattainable. Until someone finds an explanation, we’ll have to invent one. Meanwhile, following is a recap of who some of the Sacramento-street-sign stars were.

Bell Avenue: Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) was 29 years old when he and fellow inventor Elisha Gray independently developed ways to electronically transmit voices. Bell was first to contact the patent office, reportedly by a few hours. Perhaps the Scotland-born Bell, unlike Gray, was able to fax his application.
Edison Avenue: Thomas Edison (1847–1931) is credited with inventing, among other things, the phonograph and the motion-picture camera. The Ohio native also came up with an idea of making pianos out of concrete, so he wasn’t perfect.
Fulton Avenue: Robert Fulton (1765–1815) did not invent the steamboat, but he was able to make one that was commercially feasible.
Howe Avenue: Elias Howe (1819–1867) patented the lockstitch sewing machine in 1846, although to put a fine point on the matter, he refined rather than invented it.
Marconi Avenue: Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) was a pioneer in wireless transmission of sounds, by 1902 receiving messages from as far as 1,550 miles away.
Watt Avenue: James Watt (1736–1819), like Bell a Scot, made improvements to the steam engine that helped fire up the Industrial Revolution. It should not come as a shock to anyone that a unit of power is named after the guy.
Whitney Avenue: Eli Whitney (1765–1825), like Howe and Morse, was born in Massachusetts. He invented the cotton gin, but imitations grew like weeds and his cotton-picking business quickly went south. He made his fortune by creating interchangeable parts that allowed for the mass production of rifles.